Three victims of modern slavery in the UK have launched a legal case against Biffa, Smart Solutions and FS Commercial.
In a pre-action letter, law firm Leigh Day said the firms had a “duty to prevent forced labour in their workforce”, after the claimants worked sorting rubbish for Biffa while under the control of a criminal trafficking gang in 2015 and 2016.
The individuals, who spoke little to no English, had travelled from Poland to the UK and were promised a decent wage and secure work in the West Midlands. Instead they were forced into squalid, overcrowded houses, lawyers said.
The workers were registered at recruitment agency Smart Solutions and taken to work at Biffa. Wages were paid into bank accounts that were opened in their names and controlled by the criminal gang.
The scheme was uncovered as part of Operation Fort, Britain’s largest anti-slavery prosecution.
Eight members of the criminal gang were convicted of crimes including trafficking, conspiracy to require another to perform forced labour and money laundering. Natalia Zmuda, one of the criminal defendants, worked for Smart Solutions.
Lawyers said Biffa, Smart Solutions and umbrella company FS Commercial had a duty to prevent forced labour in their workforce, including “the forced labour to which the claimants were subjected by their traffickers, which occurred at and was intrinsically linked to their work”.
Liana Wood, solicitor at Leigh Day said: “The perpetrators of these crimes have been convicted, but our clients believe that answers still need to be sought about the structures that enabled this exploitation to take place in plain sight.
“Our clients’ case is that companies have a duty to prevent modern slavery in their workplace: it is very unlikely that these crimes could have taken place if proper procedures had been in place to prevent them. It appears that a blind eye was turned while vulnerable people went through these terrible ordeals.”
In response to the claims, Biffa said it takes a “zero tolerance approach to modern slavery of any kind”.
“We cooperated fully with West Midlands Police at the time of this investigation in 2016. We regularly review our practices and protocols to ensure we continually follow best practice on this important issue… All allegations against Biffa are denied and will be defended in any court proceedings.”
A spokesperson for Smart Solutions told the Guardian: “Since we were first made aware that our workforce had been infiltrated, we have worked tirelessly to ensure that we are continuously developing in our approach to hidden labour exploitation. We work to educate our clients, supply chains and external businesses so, as a collective, we can try and put an end to modern day slavery.”
Meanwhile, research found almost half (45%) of senior managers in the financial services sector are unaware that modern slavery exists in the UK.
The study led by the UK’s anti-slavery commissioner Dame Sara Thornton, in partnership with financial crime agency Themis and the Tribe Freedom Foundation, found that many organisations view the requirement to publish a modern slavery statement outlined in the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) “as nothing but a tick-box exercise”.
Over two-fifths (43%) of board level managers and director level employees surveyed either did not know if their organisation had a modern slavery policy to manage slavery risks or confirmed they did not have one altogether.
Over a third (36%) of financial industry employees believed their organisation has no influence at all in combating the issue of modern slavery.
More than two-thirds (68%) of financial industry employees surveyed did not believe the subject had been raised more than “a few times” by senior management, if at all, in the last 12 months.
Dickon Johnstone, CEO of Themis, said: “Financial institutions need to take a good look at their core business activities, and understand where their money is going and what types of business it is enabling... There are 40 million people in slavery in the world, so chances are your institution will have either direct or indirect links to modern slavery and human trafficking somewhere within your operations, your supply chains or in those businesses you lend to or invest in. Don’t turn a blind eye – do something about it.”
A survey by the same organisations last year found a similar picture, with two-fifths of senior staff in financial services not believing slavery existed in the UK.
Under new UK measures firms could be fined for not complying with transparency obligations in the MSA.
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